Oh, what a tangled web we weave. As Sterling, Cooper, Draper - and, to a lesser extent, Pryce - suit up for the penultimate season of AMC's sensational Mad Men, hold on to your trilbies and check your morals at the door, 'cause we're all going back into the boardroom.
Advertising is the show's conceptual punchline - in the cult of consumerism, these guys are L. Ron Hubbard. A trader in lies, the ad man dispenses meaning at a price, diagnosing sources of emptiness and providing temporary cures. Of course, Mad Men is as much a comment on today as it is yesterday. Advertising is more lucrative and more devious than ever; and every Occupy-era viewer is a coin in the slot. Two-and-a-half million Americans tune in to AMC each week for forty-two minutes of visual and emotional stimulation, a dose of truth for which Jon Hamm earns $250,000 per episode. Mad Men, like Don Draper, is an advert for itself.
The Sixties setting was never the cheap aphrodisiac the show's Sunday supplement presence would suggest (nor is it the visual gimmick of such BBC slurs as The Hour). Timing is the chassis on Matthew Weiner's machine - Don's drones have found themselves post-War and post-purpose, right in the absurdist's playground. Mad Men is built on layers of contradiction and deceit, where white collars and trophy wives are symptoms of a hollow disease. Without higher purpose, Weiner argues, men (and women) subscribe to a higher lie, a religion of possession and profit that is necessary to stomach the free-fall (see the credits) of mortality.
The show has taken a critical beating over its token treatment of socio-political issues. Such complaints are wrongly based on a model of Mad Men as a broad cultural statement - The Wire for the WASP. Weiner's enterprise is totally contrary; it exists to expose insularity and insincerity, and the shallowness with which the besuited capitalist ignores real struggle, to his ultimate undoing. It is axiomatic that race, feminism, and homosexual rights should be treated with disdain, flashing into focus for a half-assed acknowledgement then swiftly silenced with a stiff Scotch. Peggy Olson is, tellingly, the only character to keep her proverbial shit together. Her industry is cheap, but within it she has a cause of value - there is a glass ceiling dividing her from Don's bottomless elevator, or Roger's LSD.
Don is the real hook of Mad Men; a product of his own Creative Direction, Dick Whitman knows all about deceit. The knowledge of others' desperate desires gives him the power to exploit them for monetary or sexual fulfilment (securing him a spot on the housewives' naughty list), but he does so under the dry assumption that for a hollow man in a hollow world, these are the only attainable goals. Megan Calvet is a great character because she illustrates Don's point: she is a hypocrite who dismisses the falsities of advertising, only to run (on her husband's dollar) to the next-most trivial industry. There is no rest for the wicked.
Don is a tragic villain because for all his insights on humanity, he is bound by the same rules as everybody else; beneath the haute couture tailoring and the Cognacced cool sits a rotten soul, charred with desires. In the first four seasons, we are allowed only glimpses of Don the human being. Anna Draper (and later Peggy Olson) is his kryptonite, filling the deepest of all his many emotional voids like none of his formidable list of conquests ever could. Born to a woman he never knew, and raised by an abuser he never loved, Don is, in his weaker moments, a boy looking for his mother. This is why his ever-platonic relationship with Peggy is so complex and so sad; unable to reconcile wife and mother, he is doomed to be alone.
In this respect, the human angle, season five was a major chicane on Madison Avenue; in an existential chapter, the ad men came for the first time face-to-face with their own end-credits. Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell stumbled upon reality, or lack thereof, in the forms of LSD and electro-shock therapy, in episodes which called time on their cartoon marriages. Don was literally haunted by death.
The suicide of Lane Pryce was surely the defining moment of Mad Men as we know it, but as a blueprint for the rest of the show it was less instructive (foolishly, Mr Weiner revealed his hand back in 2011, telling a reporter that Don would live to see the present day). When digging for the answers to the show, it is worth remembering one of its more brilliant motifs: The Beatles crop up all over the Draper story, a sibling narrative with the same crises. There will be deaths, drugs and Hare Krishna, but in the end there is Abbey Road, and acceptance. Lane Pryce was always going to happen; he was a sacrifice to the cause, a martyr so convinced of the value of money he was prepared to die for it. There's one in every religion.